Black History Month – An Interview with Laila Sabreen, Author of You Truly Assumed; On Author Mentor Match and Writing the Intersection of Black Muslim Identity

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.

I could not be more delighted to kick off the Pond’s Black History Month 2022 series with an exciting visit from Laila Sabreen, author of You Truly Assumed! I had the pleasure and honour to read You Truly Assumed last year and loved its take on activism and community through online spaces from the perspective of three Black Muslim teens. (You can read my review for You Truly Assumed here!)

an illustration of a yellow duckling wearing glasses and hoop earrings.

What I found refreshing and particularly powerful about You Truly Assumed was that the story firmly centers the main characters, Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah – three very different girls from different parts of the country. Their story isn’t about racism or Islamophobia, but it’s about how these three girls navigate their own unique loves while also grappling with the nuances of being Black and Muslim, and how they lay claim to their own power and voice.

Evidently, I loved You Truly Assumed and could probably go on and on about how much I love this book. So it brings me great pleasure to welcome Laila to the Pond today, visiting us as a bespectacled duckling, to the Pond. I’m excited to show you all the wonderful interview that I had with her, and I hope that it’ll get you excited for You Truly Assumed!

You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen

Sabriya has her whole summer planned out in color-coded glory, but those plans go out the window after a terrorist attack near her home. When the terrorist is assumed to be Muslim and Islamophobia grows, Sabriya turns to her online journal for comfort. You Truly Assumed was never meant to be anything more than an outlet, but the blog goes viral as fellow Muslim teens around the country flock to it and find solace and a sense of community.

Soon two more teens, Zakat and Farah, join Bri to run You Truly Assumed and the three quickly form a strong friendship. But as the blog’s popularity grows, so do the pushback and hateful comments. When one of them is threatened, the search to find out who is behind it all begins, and their friendship is put to the test when all three must decide whether to shut down the blog and lose what they’ve worked for…or take a stand and risk everything to make their voices heard.

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Author Interview: Laila Sabreen

CW: Hi Laila! A warm, warm welcome to The Quiet Pond. I feel like this visit has been a long time coming, so I am so thrilled that you are finally visiting us today! For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a bit about yourself – and also recommend us a few books that everyone should read?

Laila: Hi CW! Thank you so much for having me at The Quiet Pond. So a little bit about me is that I write YA contemporary novels that feature that center Black Muslim teens just trying to live their best lives. When I’m not writing novels, I’m usually writing essays since I’m a Sociology and English double major. In my free time, I enjoy watching reality tv, making music playlists, and also reading. For book recommendations, I would definitely say Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. It’s actually my favorite book, and I love how she incorporates folklore in the text. For YA contemporary recommendations, I’m a huge fan of Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé,  Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar, and Off The Record by Camryn Garrett. 

CW: I’d love to learn more about your writing journey. When did you start writing, and what sparked your love for it? How many stories had you written prior to You Truly Assumed? And what was your experience like with Author Mentor Match?

Laila: So I started writing when I was younger by dabbling in Angelina Ballerina fanfiction, except I didn’t know I was writing fanfiction at the time. I used to go to my local library every weekend and I loved the Angelina Ballerina books! I was definitely a reader before I was a writer, so I think my love of writing grew from those trips to the library. Eventually, I started writing short stories with my own original characters before working on novels once I was older. Prior to You Truly Assumed, I’d written five novels and all of them were Nanowrimo or Camp Nanowrimo projects. Four of them were actually more on the contemporary fantasy side, which is really interesting. So I guess You Truly Assumed is the sixth book I wrote! 

I had a fantastic experience with Author Mentor Match, and I learned a lot from working with Adiba Jaigirdar. She’s been a mentor and friend to me beyond the program, and she definitely helped me shape You Truly Assumed into the story it is today. From the program, I learned a lot about revision strategies, how to process and incorporate feedback, and querying. I also started building my writing community through the program as well! I ended up becoming close friends with one of the mentees in my round, Kris R. Lee, and her book, Required Reading for the Disenfranchised Freshman, debuts a week before mine!

I did do another mentorship program with You Truly Assumed prior to Author Mentor Match, but I did not have a similar experience. What I learned from participating in both programs is that everyone’s experience with writing mentorship programs is different! While mentorship programs are a great opportunity to strengthen your manuscript and build community, they don’t make or break a writer!

CW: Congratulations on your forthcoming debut, You Truly Assumed! I had the pleasure of reading it early and I loved it! I loved Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah so much and how you created these three very different individuals with unique stories but brought the story together in such a cohesive and compelling way. In the writing process, how did you approach crafting the three girls and their unique voices? 

Laila: I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed reading You Truly Assumed! In the writing process, I made sure that Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah each had distinct hometowns geographically and different relationships with those towns. All three of the towns are fictional, but are also loosely based on places that I consider home in different ways. I also made sure that each main character had a distinct surrounding cast of characters and different hobbies and interests, as well. Dialogue was another tool that I used to set Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah apart. For example, Sabriya uses a lot of regional based AAVE when speaking that Zakat and Farah don’t use!

CW: I really loved that their blog, You Truly Assumed, brought the girls and the wider Muslim community together. What were the inspiration/s behind the story? And what inspired the idea of a blog being an online space for a community? 

Laila: So I started writing You Truly Assumed during my junior year of high school. That was around the time where the Muslim Ban was in the news and anti-Muslim hate was really being discussed because of how it was being used in politics. I think I was also processing the results of the 2016 election, and what that meant for me as a young Black Muslim woman. The blogging aspect of the story was inspired by the fact that I used to be a book blogger when I was in high school! I enjoyed creating content and writing posts, so I brought that to You Truly Assumed.

CW: I really enjoyed how Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah are Black and Muslim, but their stories highlight that there are different yet valid ways of being Black and Muslim. What was the ‘place’ you were writing from when you wrote their perspectives? What did it mean to you to write Black Muslim teen characters?

Laila: I think I was writing from a place of wanting to be seen in my entirety when writing from Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s perspectives. I feel like Black Muslims are often overlooked within the Muslim community, and that problem is seen in YA as well. That’s slowly starting to change and I’m starting to see more Black Muslim authors, in YA and in other catergories, which is really great! But when I first started writing You Truly Assumed, I didn’t have any books by Black Muslim YA authors to read which motivated me to write by own. Growing up, I grappled with feeling like my Blackness minimized me being Muslim or that other people thought that. So writing You Truly Assumed really helped me to embrace all intersections of my identity. 

It was really affirming to write Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah’s story, and I think it’s the self-affirmation I got from writing Black Muslim teen characters that meant so much to me.

CW: When writing You Truly Assumed, what was your biggest challenge? 

Laila: A big challenge that I found when writing my book, and that I still struggle with sometimes, is navigating the feeling that I have to represent all Black Muslims in You Truly Assumed. It’s an unnecessary pressure to put on myself because it isn’t realistic for one story to be representative of an entire group, or subgroup, of people. To overcome this challenge, I’ve mostly been reminding myself of that fact and also reminding myself that I’m telling the story that’s true of my own individual experience and not really anyone else’s.

CW: The road to becoming an author is arduous, so let’s take a moment to celebrate you! What is something that you are proud of about your author journey so far? 

Laila: I was really proud of myself after the first author-related speaking event I did! I’ve done a couple more since then, but I remember being really anxious about talking about myself and You Truly Assumed. I ended up really enjoying myself, so just pushing myself to step out of my comfort zone and gain experience with this new aspect of being an author was something that I was proud of.

CW: It was so wonderful to have you visit us today, Laila! Thank you so, so much for visiting. My last question is one that I ask all of our guests: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

Laila: A food that reminds me of home is my mom’s mac-n-cheese! She uses my nana’s recipe, and we eat the dish during any big family meal that we have. 

About the Author

Laila Sabreen (pronounced lay-luh suh-breen) is a young adult contemporary writer who was raised in the Washington DC area. She currently attends Emory University where she is double majoring in Sociology and English.

Her love of writing began as a love of reading, which started when she used to take weekly trips to her local library. There she fell in love with the Angelina Ballerina series, so much so that she started to write Angelina Ballerina fanfiction at the age of five (though she did not know it was fanfiction at the time). When she isn’t writing, she can be found working on essays, creating playlists that are way too long, and watching This Is Us.

Her debut YA contemporary novel, YOU TRULY ASSUMED, releases with Inkyard Press/HarperCollins on February 8, 2022. She will also have a short story included in the YA anthology, STUDY BREAK, which releases with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan in Winter 2023 and features short stories written by Gen Z contributors for Gen Z readers. She is represented by Kat Kerr at Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Find Laila on: Website | Twitter | Instagram

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